In chapter four of the book, moderator Jamie Dew (of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) asks Hugh Ross and me to talk about the problem of natural evil. Since both organizations accept the long history of life on earth predating human beings, we are in similar positions with needing to provide an answer for whether a creation that included the death and suffering of animals can legitimately be called “very good.” The issue is not easily waved away (which is why it is called a problem!), and sometimes it is suggested that evolution makes the problem worse. In this short excerpt, I suggest some ways that perhaps the process of evolution helps us understand why God created things this way.
Excerpt from Jim Stump, “Death, Predation, and Suffering” from Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussion Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos, ed. Kenneth Keathley, J.B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 71-73.
It is difficult to square this picture of nature with a good, all-powerful God who is worthy of worship. It is little comfort to say that God knows when a sparrow falls, or a gazelle is torn apart by a cheetah, or a species of hominin goes extinct if God set up the system that virtually guarantees such events will happen—often attended by gruesome pain and suffering. But as I’ll describe below, this is an incomplete picture of creation and the evolutionary process.
Ultimately I admit that we are in the position of Job, and in attempting to solve this problem we run the risk of speaking of things we do not understand, things to wonderful for us to know (Job 42:3). God himself claims in Job 38 that he is directly involved in providing prey for the lion and the raven (see also Ps 104), suggesting that our capacity for determining good and evil is not infallible. Yet it is important for us to try. God does not need defending, but we must do our best—though we now see only dimly—to articulate systems of beliefs that are coherent and responsible to the light we’ve been given.
Strategies for responding to evil typically appeal to “greater goods” such as free will (even though it can be used for evil purposes), or to “the only way” as a means to greater goods (e.g., natural disasters are a means to the greater good of a dynamic planet). Can it similarly be argued that evolution (with its attendant “evils”) is the only way to bring about greater goods that God desired for his creation?
One of those greater goods might be what has already been suggested: that God delights in the process of transformation itself. But few people would think that is enough to justify the eons of animal pain and suffering. To this, though, we might add an “only way” theodicy. Perhaps the evolutionary struggle is the only way to develop moral beings like us. I’d suggest that moral maturity is a quality that can be developed only by making moral decisions. God can no more create morally mature creatures than he could create free persons who are incapable of sin. So to achieve moral maturity, agents must be involved in their own moral formation by making decisions with moral implications. But in order to have genuine moral decisions, there must be a challenging environment in which beings are subjected to the kinds of natural evils that force difficult decisions. When faced with such situations, will creatures opt for their own selfish preservation over doing what is right and good?
Until recently, no one studying evolutionary history would have even considered such a question. But now there is increasing interest in the role of cooperation and even altruism in the story of the development of more complex animal forms. In this sense, suffering is a catalyst for greater goods, but not as a mere means to an end. The suffering and pain is in some sense constitutive of the greater good of moral formation. We need not try to force ourselves to think that suffering is good, but it seems that God has structured the world to bring good out of suffering.
We at BioLogos clearly affirm that humans bear the image of God, but also that we are linked with the other animals. Our capacities and behaviors—both good and bad—were developed through the long process of evolution. Just as “the cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer,” so too we might say that our capacity for moral responsibility was forged from processes that included pain.
If this connection between morality and biology has merit, we must question whether we would want a world history devoid of the natural “evils” associated with evolution. What else would such a world be missing? It seems that evolution may be the only way to create beings with the capacity to know good and evil.